It was a clear blue sky over a clear blue sea, and we were cruising at 130kts, and all was well with the world.
Heading to Palma de Majorca, we had departed from Montpellier Candillargues an hour earlier, our Piper Dakota fully fueled with 72 gallons of Avgas, yellow life vests over us, and a life raft that was somewhat uselessly stored in the luggage compartment. We had been handed over from Marseille Information to Barcelona, and for a while there was only silence on the radio, and we were contemplating the beautiful scenery and how incredibly privileged we were.
Our trip had started a day earlier with the original intention of flying to Goodwood for the Festival of Speed. This was our second attempt to reach Goodwood, and the second time we had to cancel due to weather. After checking a number of weather sites, with some obsessive/compulsive clicking on the refresh button of my browser in the desperate hope of seeing an improvement, I spoke to a meteorologist at Geneva airport (LSGG), our home field. He confirmed the uncertainty of the weather from the south-west to the north-east of France. The weather for our Plan B, Majorca, however, was much more hopeful. And so South we headed.
I was travelling with my 17-year old son Nabil, who had just completed his radio telephony course, eager to put his recently acquired knowledge into practice. HB-PMJ is our favourite aircraft in the Aeroclub de Genève where I’m a member. “Our” Dakota can handle practically any airfield. Filled to the brim with fuel, luggage and passengers, the 235hp engine coupled with the constant speed prop will get you in the air without a fuss.
Flying from Geneva, we decided to spend the night somewhere on the mainland near the coast, so that the next morning we would begin our sea crossing fully refreshed. We ended up choosing Montpellier Candillargues (LFNG), the “smaller” of the two airports of Montpellier. The commentary on www.nav2000.com on Montpellier Mediterranee (LFMT) described the Kafkaesque treatment of GA aircraft there, and it’s true that a few years back (before 9/11) my experience on arrival was laden with administration. Apparently things have not improved.
Candillargues has a concrete runway of 900m and seems to have an active GA community, including a substantial amount of ultralight activity. It’s very close to the CTR of its bigger sister, and in fact the runway runs parallel and only 50 m from the CTR border. Indeed we were in radio contact with Montpellier Tower who let us go when we had the field in sight. We had to be very careful not over-run into the CTR when flying overhead the runway.
The only real disadvantage of Candillargues is that it’s some 20 kms from town, with no public transport. But it is possible to rent a car from the owner of a small pizzeria located at the edge of the airfield. The owner clearly saw a business opportunity with arriving pilots! The rental car had seen better days, about 320,000 km ago, but at least it gave us freedom of movement and we didn’t mind so much the lack of power steering, power windows, power locks, air conditioning, not to mention the lack of a cigarette lighter (to power our GPS).
The next day we made our way back to the airfield (thank you GPS) and gave back our car. We had to wait for the person responsible for fuel to come back from an instruction flight (in spite of having an appointment with him the day before). So we took that time to ask the locals about the ins and outs on the procedure for departure. We were also keeping a close watch on a cloud cell that must have been right over the city of Montpellier, pouring down with rain. But as if by some miracle, at the right time, the cell just moved over eastward, leaving behind some limpid, clear skies in its place, and opening the door for our flight over the sea.
We filed our flight plan over the phone, and were ready to go.
It was a runway 14 departure, with an immediate left turn to max 1200 AMSL, to avoid the CTR. Montpellier Tower quickly recognized us from our flight plan and cleared us to cross their airspace. We set a heading of 180, took a deep breath and flew straight to Son Bonet, Mallorca (LESB).
Palma de Mallorca airport (LEPA) doesn’t accept GA VFR aircraft during the summer week-ends, but Son Bonet is actually not that far from the city (25 Euro taxi ride), has a long runway (1200 m), easy approaches, and relatively light administration. The airport staff does require to see all the paperwork (plane inclusive), so be prepared for this. But the staff is very helpful, which makes this is a pretty harmless procedure and can be accomplished very quickly. Moreover, the landing + parking fees were quite cheap (around 10 euros).
The flight over the sea was memorable, with surprisingly little radio chatter. It’s always a little disconcerting at first to be surrounded by blue everywhere with no real reference points, and truth be told, the first sighting of land is always accompanied with a little private sigh of relief! We found Spanish controllers generally very helpful, and quite tolerant of VFR traffic. We reached the island after some 2+ hours of flying. We integrated as number 3 in the circuit and landed on runway 23.
We spent two nights in Palma and the next day we did a local flight over the island. There’s a maximum ceiling of 1000ft over most of the island, which made for some low flying over the beaches. Majorca has a varied landscape, with mountains to the west and beaches to the east. The beaches seem to be taken over by big hotels and rows and rows of deck chairs. In the past, I’ve found Majorca can have its own microclimate over its mountains. Two years ago Nabil and I flew over from Spain through CAVOK weather all the way – until we reached the island! We started seeing scattered clouds, which turned to broken all around the mountains. With the low permissible ceiling we had no choice but to go round the island. Once we reached the beaches the weather totally cleared up. (The METAR over Palma was good).
One other thing to remember… there’s a no-fly zone to the south-west that covers the King’s residence. Don’t fly through it!
For our return destination we chose Nimes Courbessac (LFME). A couple of years ago we discovered a charming guest house http://www.le-masdescattes.com/ very close to the aerodrome. It is actually held by a family steeped in aviation. Both the husband and the son are airline pilots (the latter having earned his private wings in Courbessac itself). Their hospitality is absolutely wonderful. The lady of the house fetches us from the airfield and drops us back as well. It is a real oasis of tranquility and we highly recommend it to everyone.
Filing our flight plan at the computer from Son Bonet, we were kindly helped by the station manager who gave us many useful hints and tips on the best way to file it. It took us some time, but I think it must have been the most perfect flight plan we have ever filed.
And then they lost it.
Well we think so. We activated the plan with Palma Operations, who cleared us to contact Tower. Tower, however, had no trace of our flight plan, and asked us to go back to Operations! They asked us to standby whilst they sorted things out. In the meantime we were leaving behind Palma at a rapid pace and radio reception with Operations was getting worse and worse. Finally they came back and told us things were cleared and we could now safely go back to Tower. We heaved a sigh of relief and re-contacted Tower – who again told us that they had no trace of our plan. Ok, this was getting a little too surrealistic for me. I had visions of them asking us to go back and land to file it again. Luckily, they admitted a “technical problem” and allowed us to continue to Nimes.
Our suspicion that they lost our flight plan was supported by the questions each controller was asking about our flight – answers to which can easily be found in the plan itself. “Say again type of aircraft”, “how many persons on board”… it seemed to us as if they were filing another plan “on the fly”, as it were.
Approaching Courbessac, Rhone Information kindly offered to close our flight plan, which we gratefully accepted. However, some 15 minutes after we arrived, when I enquired about fuel, I was told that the authorities were worried about us as they “lost us” and called in to check whether we landed safely! Very strange…! Either Rhone Information did not close the plan as they suggested, or else they closed one plan and there was another one floating around…!
Courbessac is within the TMA of Nimes Garons (military) and contact is needed with Rhone Information or Garons to enter. But our experience with these controllers has always been positive, with quick clearances. Courbessac has grass runways that are very long (945 m), no tower, and no landing fees, and of course no administration or paper work. We had a warm welcome and the service (for fuel, for example) was excellent. We love these small, grass-roots airports, where you feel welcomed by people who share a passion. There are many such airfields in France as well as Switzerland.
Our next stop the next day is an airfield that falls exactly in this category. Romans St Paul (LFHE) is a little more than half way to Geneva (to the North of Valence), has a grass runway of 935m, and a small restaurant right on the premises. It made for a convenient stop.
Geneva had rain in the morning, a sharp contrast to what we enjoyed in Nimes and Romans. It was as if there were an invisible border running just north of Valence, separating good and bad weather. We’ve noticed this regularly before.
Luckily the weather in Geneva did clear up, just in time for us to finish our lunch, and file our flight plan. It was more or less a direct flight to CBY VOR, and from there the standard route into Geneva. Hearing the familiar voices of the Geneva air traffic controllers on the radio, after a week away, gave us a warm fuzzy feeling of being back at home.
We flew about 11 hours and covered some 1300 nm over a varied landscape, through some busy airspaces. I was proud of the way Nabil handled the radio. We were lucky with the weather, and had no regrets about choosing our Plan B.
It was fun. It was exciting. It was a privileged experience.
Science, freedom, beauty, adventure: what more could you ask of life? Aviation combined all the elements I loved. (Charles Lindbergh)